Review by Francois Couture
This is the debut solo album by Lau Naukkarinen (aka Lau Nau), a young alternative folk singer active on the Finnish abstract folk scene and sharing affinities with the likes of Fursaxa and the Iditarod. She sings in her native tongue, in a very quiet, unassuming voice that has a certain charm but falls under the generic heading of the genre. Kuutarha contains ten short songs (only one of them crosses the five-minute mark), for a total duration of 41 minutes. Its main point of interest resides in the wide array of instruments used, especially the profusion of guitars and string instruments, from sitar to violin, by way of droning electric guitars. Various flutes are also heard throughout. Nau multi-tracks her voice in some pieces, at times strongly evoking some of Linda Perhacs' songs, especially in "Kuljen halki kuutarhan." The songs remain abstract for the most part, evolving slowly and all but hiding their melodies (a technique similar to the No-Neck Blues Band), and the incantatory mood thus created is surprisingly captivating. Highlights include "Kuula," "Johdattaja-Joleen" and the aforementioned "Kuljen halki kuutarhan," one of the most experimental tracks on the album. The Nepalese traditional song (or so it is identified) "Kivi mureneee jolla kavelee" features a lot of hand percussion in addition to the plaintive violin and psalmodic background vocals. Pekko Kappi, Tomas Regan and Antti Tolvi lend a hand in a few pieces, but Kuutarha is first and foremost a solo project, with lots of overdubs and a prejudice for lo-fi esthetics. The results are intriguing, with the resourceful instrumentation making up for a certain lack of vocal originality, but not entirely conclusive yet. We will have to see what Lau Nau will produce next.
Ambitious crews like Gang Gang Dance, Animal Collective, Jane, Iran, and Excepter have recently transformed NYC's premature No New York Jr. hype machine into something genuinely exciting. But, turned-off by blindsided Big Apple-centrism, I could just as easily tag Vienna, Oslo, or the San Francisco Bay area as the key musical centers in my own personal cosmology. Right now, perhaps even more than those locations, I'd consider Tampere, Helsinki, and Turku, Finland the most fertile breeding ground for today's refreshing noises.
Lucky for stateside consumers, Finnish hype means once impossible-to-locate releases are trickling-down to North American labels. I've listened to dozens of eccentric, beautiful Finnish albums and one of the best is Lau Nau's debut, Kuutarha, the work of 20-something Laura Naukkarinen. She's also a member and/or participant of Finnish ensembles Avarus, the Anaksimandros, Kiila, Kemialliset Ystavat, and Paivansade and most recently one-third of Hertta Lussuassa with Merja Kokkonen (aka Islaja) and Jonna Karanka (aka Kuupuu). Unlike these communal projects, she mostly goes it alone here, joined on a few tracks by Pekko Kappi on jouhikko (a fiddle played on the knee), Tomas Regan on acoustic bass and banjo, and Antti Tolvi on flutes, kantele, chimes, and mandolin.
Fittingly, Kuutarha was originally a small edition, self-released and long out-of-print CD-R with handmade packaging that included painted sleeves, twigs/branches. Playing it regularly for months, it's become familiar enough that I find it difficult to explain, like if someone asked me to state in clear, declarative prose my smallest, subconscious habits.
Focus could be placed on her astute experimentation but just as important is Naukkarinen as a scruffily polished singer/songwriter, one unafraid to trip between airy lullabies, eerie rambles, and Angus Maclise fireside jams. She digs deep into the musical toolbox, using (and I quote), acoustic bass, bass recorder, five-stringed kantele, acoustic guitar, tenor recorder, violin, bamboo flute, colorful juice glasses, mortar, mandolin, witch laugh megaphone, baby's rattle, bike bells, banjo, cowbells, electric guitar, organ, willow whistle, tablas, percussion, cymbals, comb, and beer cans to add to her blooming abstract folk milieu. Whether "Johdattaja-Joleen"'s Avarus-style Django Reinhardt gypsy swing or the Henry Flynt embossed "Kivi murenee jolla kavelee", Naukkarinen manages to take a million-and-one risks while keeping things subtle, understated, aesthetically intriguing, and emotionally resonant.
Naukkarinen sings in Finnish, so for non-speakers, lyrics will likely remain another hard-to-pin-down element. She provided me with English translations, though, and it turns out her use of language is just as nimble as her instrumentation. Opener " Jos minulla olisi" ("If I had"), nails silvan spiritualism: "If I had a religion/ It would be a living creature/ One couldn't raise/ With any force or labour." "Plakkikanteletar" echos Wallace Stevens' "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" ("Five crows/ On a rainy asphalt/ Fly on great wings/ Through our window") and "Tulkaa!"'s insect bells, background swells, plucking, and singing saw contribute to a Leaves of Grass vocal invocation: "Come kites!/ Come mosques!/ Come chaffinchs!/ Wise fellows of the forest!"
Kuutarha isn't perfect, but it gels and works perfectly in its own ineffable way-- its spare, haunted, almost silent acoustic ambiance comes off like a Vashti Bunyan madrigal broken into tiny parts then rewoven with grass to create a new, wraithlike mosaic openly defying the original time-based narrative, and replacing it with an experimental drift just as cohesive as its original, pristine format.
- Brandon Stosuy, May 3, 2005